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Ukraine: Pro-Russian Separatism Fades In Ukraine's Crimea

  • Jan de Weydenthal

Prague, 8 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Meeting last week in Simferopol, several dozen die-hard, pro-Russian Crimean separatists founded a Congress of Russian People to act as "some kind of a shadow government and a shadow parliament" of Crimea's autonomy within Ukraine.

The congress issued a declaration warning that in the event of "discrimination," ethnic Russians living in Crimea might "use actions of civil disobedience" against elected local government bodies. The gathering approved the symbols of the Russian Federation as its own emblems.

Yesterday, the congress' newly elected chairman, Sergei Shuvalnikov, was reported by a Russian news agency as having told a press conference that representatives of the congress plan to go to Moscow to establish formal relations with Russian officials and ask for "humanitarian help to their compatriots living in Crimea."

These actions and pronouncements seem designed to signal a revival of the once politically prominent pro-Russian separatist movement in the Crimean region of Ukraine.

But this move appears to be of relatively minor importance in Ukrainian politics. It seems geared to reflect Moscow's growing nationalistic fervor rather than Ukraine's realities. Some Russian politicians have recently shown renewed interest in Crimea, perhaps in an effort to display nationalist credentials in the event of possible power changes resulting from extended illness of President Boris Yeltsin.

In 1992, Crimean's regional parliament adopted a constitution providing the right to secede from Ukraine. Two years later, the region elected both its parliament and president on the promise of bringing it about. Crimea's population is about 70 percent ethnic Russian.

But in early 1995, Ukraine stopped those plans. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma issued a decree subjecting the Crimean government to his direct control, and the Ukrainian parliament voted to annul the Crimean constitution and abolish the region's presidency. Effective power passed to a regional prime minister appointed by Kyiv. The separatist movement was crushed. In the subsequently held regional elections none of the separatist candidates was elected to the region's district councils.

These developments have effectively undermined the region's administrative and political autonomy. Crimea's current concerns focus on economic issues and growing crime, rather than dreams of unity with Russia.

Once a tourist paradise, Crimea has suffered during recent years from a drop in tourism and declining economic output. These difficulties have been augmented by the apparent breakdown in law and order. Organized crime is widely reported to be rampant throughout the region. Criminal gangs are said regularly to attack rival commercial establishments. Contract killings are reported to be rife.

Crimean Communist party leader Leonid Grach recently told a Western reporter that "crime has reached such a peak that people enter politics now merely to line their pockets."

A former leading pro-Russian activist Sergei Tsekov told the same reporter that old-fashioned pro-Russian separatism "did not have much support" in the region. He said that he now advocates "cooperation" between Ukraine and Russia. And he emphasizes the need to combat criminality.

The current ethnic problems center on the so-called "Moslem factor," commonly identified with the presence of a large community of Crimean Tartars.

The Tartars, who settled in the Crimea hundreds of years ago, were deported en masse in the 1940s by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who accused them of collaboration with the Nazis. They started to return to Crimea only a few years ago, and now face severe unemployment and housing shortage. But the Tartars also emerged as the ethnically cohesive and well-organized group to oppose Ukrainian and Russian gangs.

In this situation, the establishment of the Congress of Russian People is but an echo of the dormant pro-Moscow separatist movement. Even so, it is possible that if the economic downturn is not arrested and crime contained, the lingering ethnic tension can well come again to the fore of regional or even national Ukrainian politics.